Background into Focus

I have never been someone who has had great skill in listening to multiple things at once. Because of this when I am focused on an activity I tend not to notice the things around me. The whole world is happening but because I am not paying attention to it, it is not actually happening to me. Every so often something in the things that I tune out begins to capture my attention. “Hearing has evolved as our alarm system — it operates out of line of sight and works even while you are asleep” (Horowitz 1). In my case, without my hearing working as an alarm system, I wouldn’t hear my alarm go off in the morning.

Having sound that capture my attention can work to my disadvantage also. At times when I attempt to study, the constant turning of a page can pull me away from what I should be doing. I become so focused on the one sound that every time I hear it, I have to pay attention to it. This also occurs as I am trying to fall asleep. It is much more interesting to listen to the conversations that occur in the hallway at midnight then it is to just fall asleep.

In some cases sounds that I hear become much easier to ignore once I discern their cause. My room borders a stairwell. Lying in bed trying to fall asleep, I would often hear a banging, echoing sound coming from the stairwell. The source of noise in the stairwell was a mystery to me for a while. It would occur randomly throughout the day but it was especially prevalent on weekend nights.  I was force to rely on causal listening “to gather information about its cause” and came to the conclusion that it was the result of people banging on the railings as they climbed the stairs (Chion 48).

Sometimes I was unable to pick out the specific cause of my distraction. In the Harris-Millis Dining Hall the sounds were not individual. All the different sounds had combined to create a whole new sound. Because I could not pick up the individual sounds I had to focus on the sound itself. By using reduced listening I was able to pick up the “timbre and texture” of the dining hall (Chion 51).

This assignment has been particularly successful at bring my focus to the things that I traditionally ignore. Even at this moment the clack of the keys on my computer keyboard have caught my attention. As I type I normally tune out the fact that each key has a sound that varies slightly differently from the others. Something that I do so often is so easily ignored. Previously, when I filled my water bottle at the fountain I was fascinated with the way the water would land in the bottle and then fill it. This assignment made me listen to the change in the sound that the water made as the bottle went from empty to full.

When I ride the bus, initially I am able to hear all the people talking along with being able to hear the rumble of the bus engine. As I spend more time on the bus, everyone’s voices seem to gradually fade out and blend with the engine unless I specifically focus on one particular conversation. However the longer that I am on it, the less I notice the engine. In this way my ears close without me even being aware of it happening.

At times I close my ears to things I should not. If a lecture does not capture my attention I end up getting distracted. In these cases I am not “open to new ideas” because they do not hold my interest (Schafer 25). Doing this assignment has made me realize just how much I close my ears to the world around me. If I miss this much in the course of a week, how much do I loose in a lifetime?

List of Sounds

Works Cited

Chion, Michel. “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Ed. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 48-53. Print.

Horowitz, Seth S. “The Science and Art of Listening.” The New York Times 9 Nov. 2012: 1-3. Print.

Schafer, Murray. “Open Ears.” Thinking About Sound. 25-39. Print.

4 thoughts on “Background into Focus

  1. I thought this was very fascinating but I wasn’t entirely sure what it was arguing. It is interesting how you pointed out how everyone hears differently, though.

  2. I like how you wrote about sounds you wouldn’t normally listen to and examine them. I kind of had the same idea of looking at sounds I usually overlook in everyday life, and I too found it rewarding in the new things I heard. I think that a lot of the time we do close our ears to things we should necessarily ignore, and really listening is a mind opening experience. I really liked your description of being on the bus and people’s voices mingling in a out and combining with the engine. I just thought that was a really insightful description

  3. I appreciated that you analyzed not only what sound brings to its relationship with you, but also what you bring to your relationship sound. This allowed insight into the two way street between you and the sounds in your world. You also gave some very good descriptions of the sounds, especially how the bus engine melded together with the sound of voices. I like that you integrated a Horowitz quote into the beginning of the piece, and I think elaborating on its significance with some more analysis could have been helpful to the effect.

    • I found your comments regarding the stairwell to be very interesting. I had not considered the differing impact of a sound depending on knowledge of the source of the sound. I, too, find myself pulled toward unidentified noises until I discover the cause, and then the noise fade into the background.

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